Review of Vicky Kirby (ed.), What if Culture Was Nature All Along?

Review of Vicky Kirby (ed.), What if Culture Was Nature All Along? (Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 272 pages, £75.00

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 Reviewed by Nick Mansfield




This new collection, edited by Vicki Kirby, makes new materialism live up to its promise of a return to the world of bodies and things that understands and advances the deconstruction of the nature /culture binarism. The result is a collection that brings deconstruction to bear on the hard work of science, not just in service of critique but in order to imagine a science that is informed by new thinking in cultural theory and philosophy.


New Materialism, Ideal/Material, Nature/Culture, Deconstruction, Vicki Kirby, Karen Barad


There’s no doubt the rise of a ‘new materialism’ is a pretty seductive thing. Who thinks we can ignore the material and get away with it? Who even thinks we are ignoring the material, in our daily life and our theory? And what’s not to like about something that’s new? There are answers to these questions on both sides, but the key thing is that the concept of a new materialism is attractive but it also creates problems: how can you be a materialist in the post-deconstructive moment when the term material sits so clearly on one side of arguably the most binary of binarisms? And the only way to be ‘new’ of course is by clearly identifying the old thing you’re separating yourself from.

A lot of new materialist writing tries to solve these twin problems, by turning what it sees as its immediate—“twentieth century”—predecessors, post-structuralism most obviously, into an idealism, and to characterise it as a sort of universal textualism. The risk is not only creating a straw-man version of your antecedents but also repeating the mistakes they critiqued and even ignoring how the work they did has led to your work, not because you need to respect them but because it’s going to help you to understand where you yourself are situated.

None of this is, of course, a comment on the value or significance of the work that is characterised as new materialist, which is often very good. It is, however, an account of the complex negotiations such thinking has to make in order to make sense of the relationship it announces in its very name with what’s gone before it. What’s significant—very significant—about the collection put together by Vicki Kirby What if Culture Was Nature All Along? is that, along with the work of Karen Barad with which it so strongly connects, it is a kind of Derridean new materialism. In this way, it remains alert to the possibilities of thinking materialism again, while still avowing its relationship (unslavish) to the post-structuralism that it re-channels.

For Kirby, the very terminology that structures our discussions locks us into a logic of clear identities. This undermines our ability to really appreciate the kinds of entanglements and complications that are both the way we will need to approach new problems as well as the older intractable enigmas that were never explained satisfactorily using older habits of thought. She writes:

Whether constructionist or new materialist, ontology or epistemology, object or subject, this tendency to posit two separate entities or systems leaves their respective identities intact. Can we work with a sense of ‘materiality’ that is more surprising, involved and, dare I say, scientifically leveraged, by contesting the actual identity of these terms and their respective contents, circumscriptions and capacities? (14)

We need an approach that can address itself to materiality, however understood, and science, not from the outside, as critical interrogations of science have so often done in Science Studies, for example, but in a way that inflects the science itself onto a track where deconstruction is understood and taken seriously. If these two approaches are not brought together, ontology will not be alert to the complications and hesitations of epistemology, and epistemology will continue to wag its finger at an ontologisation that continues along a path in which different methods compete to be the “best” method, rather than combining re-making and interrogating one another. Both the science and the theory by coming to see themselves as always already part of one another, an “apparatus” in Barad’s terms, must always remain then in an interrogative, projective and self-questioning mode. The tone of this discourse, then, will always be interrogative and self-interrogative. The grounds on which investigation is undertaken will constantly be at stake, constantly part of the problem of research and will need constantly to be foregrounded:

If what appears as an aggregation of different and separable entities in the world is a chiasmatic mangle of the world’s own individual perceptions of itself, then our very becoming is articulated through the intricate and comprehensive refractions of this processual inquiring/perceiving. In other words, life’s self-reflexivity is a working science, a dispositive, whose myriad methodologies/perceptions confound subject with/in object in the will to be/other. (18)

As we have seen in Barad’s argument that politics is part of the very texture of the universe itself, and Kirby’s own brilliant reading of Derridean grammatology in Quantum Anthropologies, what becomes possible here is a way of thinking that does not just project the material into an unreachable domain anterior to thought and valuation, and does not see the cultural as simply an enclosed and purely self-referential and self-legitimating, human-centred system. The natural and the cultural become open to and simultaneous with one another, producing complex “mangles” of thought and materiality, subjectivity and the pre-human, science as part of ontology, a Tree of Knowledge without God. Kirby writes that the question posed by the collection is:

What if there is no ‘before the social,’ no prior and unchanging ‘given’ that can adjudicate what can and can’t be changed? No prelapsarian space of goodness before the fall into culture’s corruption? Or its inverse, no unthinking and programmatic adaptation before the chance rupture of intelligence, agency and decision? What if the drive for change is as natural as the desire to prohibit, refuse and conserve? (xii)

The rest of the collection itself bears out the rich possibilities of such a thought, and what it can offer our understanding of bodily processes, disease and more. In “Sensory Substitution: The Plasticity of the Eye/I,” Florence Chiew reveals how conventional models of sensory processing remain invested heavily in a fixed model of the separation from one another of the brain functions attributed to different senses. As a result, cross-sensory stimulation, in which different sensual processes “substitute” or “compensate” for one another, are seen as second-order phenomena, coming into play only when the orthodox system is in crisis as a result of injury or trauma. Yet, evidence shows that cross-modal plasticity is always already apparent, and not a second-order phenomenon at all. As a consequence, simple structures of perception cannot be seen as regular and fixed, and the stability of the relationship between the body/subject and world complex and fluid.

Michelle Jamieson in her study of causality in allergy demonstrates how the orthodox insistence that the body is a biological pre-given frustrates our ability to make sense of the complex data generated by attempts to trace allergies to their cause. Only by acknowledging the entanglement of physical, social and psychological can the full picture of the biological emerge. Here it is a question not only of supplementing the biological by adding other factors, but of re-conceiving the social and psychological, indeed the whole ecology of the system of life as a necessary part of the biological. Another example is Jacqueline Dalziell’s article on “Microbiology as Sociology,” in which she outlines experiments on the slime Physarum polycephalum which report it to have powers of recall and decision-making that orthodox science could never attribute to organisms without a central nervous system. The challenge this poses to an orthodoxy which attributes consciousness and sociality to only certain orders of living thing, pretty much on human terms, is hard to under-estimate.

In other chapters, Rebecca Oxley challenges psycho-social orthodoxy to acknowledge and explain the somatic nature of paternal Post-Natal Depression; Noela Davis challenges the rigorous polarisations in discourses of life to show the entanglement of the biological and the social even at the body’s molecular level; Xin Liu complicates cultural constructionist accounts of racial identification that privilege the visual in order to show the multi-sensorial, even anticipatory nature of identification; Astrida Naimanis pursues this critique of the rigidity of culturalism to argue for us to open ourselves to Nature’s own writing and representational power; Will Johncock proposes that our panicky construction of the urgency of climate change action belies how care for the environment is inseparable from human being, and not just a task we are obliged to perform. The collection, in turn, is framed by Ashley Barnwell’s articulate polemic, outlining how the thinking the essays propose separates from its immediate theoretical antecedents and finally Peta Hinton’s attempt to re-think the life/death binary in a way that still allows the possibility of justice.

My aim in providing these summaries is to show that the approach in Kirby’s collection does not simply provide a new orientation for theoretical thinking, but the possibility of re-making a broad range of human investigations still largely governed by uninterrogated assumptions about bodies and subjects and the material and social more broadly.  Reading this collection, you feel constantly on the threshold of innovations across a broad range of fields, innovations that not only offer new insights into specific cases and issues but open-ended possibilities of re-configuration.

In 2010, at the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, in the United States, the complete synthesis was achieved of the 1.08 million base pair Mycoplasma mycoides genome. This represented the first complete artificial synthesis of the genetic material of a cell. Thus the first living creature was made which had no ancestor. The Yeast 2.0 project now nearing completion in five countries is synthesising the complete genome of a yeast cell, the first eukaryotic cell to have its genetic material completely synthesised using computing and bio-engineering techniques. The complete synthesis of genetic material makes genetic modification and editing—in which genetic material is extracted in the lab and radically modified—almost old hat, controversial enough as it was. The next step, already planned, is the complete synthesising of the human genome. The significance of such developments is hard to over-state. The possibilities are endless in an era where radical solutions are needed for urgent environmental and energy problems and to solve intractable medical conditions. And, of course, the cultural, ethical and political questions involved are immense, unprecedented and limitless. Suffice it to say, there has been no time in which the binarism between the natural and the cultural (as well as that between the ideal and the material) seems so useless, even meaningless. It is to a thinking that can deal with the material beyond not only binarisms, but also beyond the logic where they seem merely paired, tangled or entwined that we will have to turn to begin to talk about these things. It is to the new discourse, open, unresolved, pushing at the limits of thought and language that we will need to turn, and it’s collections like Kirby’s that are advancing our education in how to think and speak in ways that will actually work in the future.

Nick Mansfield is Professor of Critical and Cultural Studies and Dean of Higher Degree Research at Macquarie University in Sydney. His books include Masochism; the Art of Power, Theorizing War and The God Who Deconstructs Himself: Subjectivity and Sovereignty Between Freud, Bataille and Derrida. Email: